The Colorado Brewers Guild is one of the strongest state craft beer guilds because its membership is made up of some of the biggest and strongest craft brewers in the country. This summer when some of the largest craft brewers split from the guild to create their own group, Craft Beer Colorado, it was big news in the craft beer world. This split was a harbinger of things to come in the US craft beer world. The dissidents have “reconciled” with the dissident group coming back to the fold when the guild agreed to ditch its executive director and rework the bylaws to look exactly like the Craft Beer Colorado bylaws.
The specific details of what was at issue are not important, but if you follow craft beer at all you can guess that the major issue was how to deal with big beer buying craft brewers. The straw that seemed to break this camel’s back was the purchase of Breckenridge Brewing by AB-Inbev. Also, at issue was how the group responds to legislation and government regulation. The spin-off group wants a more proactive stance towards legislation, whatever that means.
Most of the complaints of the Craft Beer Colorado group centered around the existential questions at the heart of craft beer’s future. First and most basic, what is the definition of a craft brewer? Second, how do you respond legislatively to a legislative and political landscape where people don’t care what that definition is?
In a world where some craft brewers have enough money to build breweries across the country or across the world, what is a craft brewer? In a world of mergers and acquisitions and capital investment, what is a craft brewer?
This a world where the people putting up the money for brewery expansions don’t care what your definition of a craft brewer is. Neither do the big beer companies who are buying craft brewers nor do the legislators who are tasked with writing laws that legislate alcohol distribution. Most importantly, many of the people new to craft beer don’t care. They just want a beer that tastes better than Bud Light.
Now, part of what makes craft beer so good and so different is that definition and that definition is very important. How the craft beer industry sees itself and how it defines itself has always been what sets it apart from big beer. That fearlessness and innovation at the heart of craft beer is a direct result of how craft brewers define themselves and their beer.
Sticking to the core principals of what has always defined craft beer is important. At the forefront of that is independence. Craft beer’s challenge going forward is to stay true to those principals while communicating those principals to people who have no real stake in those principals. The average beer drinker who comes into my bar doesn’t care who owns Golden Road or Elysian, they just want good beer. The state guilds and the Brewers Association need to figure out a way to make them care. The beer world will look mighty different (yet somewhat familiar) if they don’t.